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Coping after a sexual assault

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience. If you have been sexually assaulted, you may experience a range of feelings and reactions that can be immediate, short-term or long-term.

This topic explains some of the common reactions people experience and offers suggestions for ways of coping with them.

Common reactions

Shocked/numb

Thinking: did this really happen? Sexual assault happens to other people, not to me. I don’t know how to feel.

Fear/anxiety

Of the person who did it, of speaking out and being judged by others, of the legal system, of pregnancy and/or sexually transmitted infections and of the world not being safe.

Difficulties with trust in relationships

Finding it challenging to trust friends, family, people in positions of power/responsibility, intimate partner.

Out of control

You may feel not in control of what happened, and of what might be happening to you emotionally and physically as a result. For example, you may experience flashbacks, nightmares, mood swings, nausea, difficulty sleeping, feeling dirty and wanting to shower often, not wanting to eat, or eating too much.

Avoidance

You may avoid going out and interacting with people, or going to specific places or doing specific things that might remind you of the sexual assault. You may avoid talking about it to anyone. You may manage difficult emotions by increasing the use of alcohol, drugs and/or gambling to block out feelings.

Guilt/self-blame

There may be feeling of guilt or self-blame about your own behaviour, blaming yourself for why the sexual assault may have happened. These feelings may come from thoughts that are based on the many myths relating to sexual assault. Your behaviour did not cause the sexual assault. The only person responsible is the person who assaulted you.

Anger

There may be feelings of anger at yourself, the person who did it, or other people, and/or anger at not being taken seriously.

 

The common reactions mentioned here are normal and to be expected, given the trauma you have experienced – you are not going 'crazy'. It is really important to take care of yourself and have support available, if needed. Remember, people can and do deal with the impact of sexual assault on their life. You will not always feel like this.

Suggested self-care strategies

  • Seek out support from people who are important to you – try not to isolate yourself or avoid activities
  • Write down how you are feeling
  • Seek information to assist with understanding and decision making
  • Try to maintain a regular routine as best as you can to maximise a sense of stability and safety
  • Get plenty of rest, even if you find it difficult
  • Make time for relaxation
  • Get regular exercise
  • Talk it through with someone you trust, e.g. friend, counsellor, family member.

After sexual assault you may find your use of alcohol, drugs or other stimulants such as coffee, cigarettes and chocolate can increase. It is important to keep in mind other coping strategies may be healthier and more beneficial.

Suggested coping strategies

You may already have ways of coping that work well for you. The following suggestions have been found useful by other survivors of sexual assault:

  • listening to music
  • reading a book or magazine
  • meditation
  • going for a walk
  • doing some gardening
  • physical exercise
  • cooking a nice meal
  • techniques such as yoga, aromatherapy
  • spending time with pets
  • taking deep breaths
  • relaxing in a warm bath
  • watching TV or going to the movies
  • if you have children, asking a friend to mind them and have some quiet time to yourself.

We know that speaking out about sexual assault and reaching out to social supports is beneficial towards effective recovery. This may mean talking to an experienced counsellor. Counselling can help you with developing an understanding of the nature of the reactions you are experiencing and ways of managing them effectively.

Myths

There are many myths about sexual assault, some you may have heard from others when seeking support following the sexual assault.

For example:

  • Women are asking for it by the way they dress
  • She/he didn’t yell out or fight back so it wasn’t sexual assault
  • She/he was under the influence of alcohol or drugs when the sexual assault occurred
  • All people who are raped have injuries; when they don’t they must have consented
  • The person was flirting with them; what did they think was going to happen?

Myths are used to shift responsibility for the sexual assault from the perpetrator to the person who has been sexually assaulted. They are some of the reasons why many people find it difficult to seek support following a sexual assault.

The person who was sexually assaulted is never to blame. The person who committed the crime of sexual assault is 100% responsible.

There is hope for the future after a sexual assault.

Will it ever get better?

Sexual assault is a traumatic experience. It is an experience during which you have not been in control. Healing can happen by taking back that control.

The quote below was written by a person who has experienced sexual assault:

“Healing is a process with good and bad days. But for every bad day I have now, I have 10, 20, 30 good ones” -  Phoenix

(Stepping out of the Shadows: A book about true healing from sexual violence written by survivors for survivors”, Yarrow Place ,2011)

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